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You People’s Racial Comedy is Dated on Arrival

Images by Parrish Lewis for Netflix

In watching Netflix’s new romantic comedy You People, there was a heady overarching question that could not escape this writer’s thoughts. Why are topicality and blatancy so often directly proportional to each other? Buzzworthy topics gain their popular importance and quickly get talked out. The lingering discourse becomes repetitive, exhaustive, or, worse, an easy target for bluntly obvious jokes that belittle what used to be the original issue. 

When the first piece of pop culture– be it a movie, show, or song– taps into a hot button issue, the topicality is fresh, evocative, and sometimes even as groundbreaking as the issue at hand. By the time the second, third, or thirtieth thing tries, unless it has something new to say, the relevance dies quickly or is lost altogether. Trying to meld firebrand social moods into an overly familiar movie premise, You People falls into that glut.

Jonah Hill, representing the older end of the Millennial age bracket (and jarringly looking it too), stars as Ezra Cohen. He is a 35-year-old L.A. stockbroker who barely acts the part. Disillusioned and uninspired in the workplace, he shows off slicked-back highlighted hair, a rainbow of tats, and Dunks on his feet. Embracing hip-hop stylings and interests in nearly every aspect of his life, Ezra would rather put his time and effort into his podcast “The Mo and E-Z Show” with his best friend Mo (Saturday Night Live writer Sam Jay). The two, despite their racial differences, share a common intellectual ground and can talk to each other through a second language of pop culture references that speak to the present zeitgeist of successful and aware Californians.

All of this flies against Ezra’s semi-traditional and well-off Jewish family living in the cushy Brentwood neighborhood of Los Angeles. Being unmarried and lower on the career ladder than other peers his age makes Ezra a minor disappointment to his parents Shelley and Arnold (TV legends Julia Louis-Dreyfus and David Duchovny). His loving mother’s ever-present need to improve her son makes Ezra a smothered focus of her meddlesome behavior. In turn, Ezra has never felt truly understood by his family and any romantic prospects.

Things perk up for Ezra when he meets and falls for Amira Mohammed, an aspiring fashion designer played by Lauren London of Without Remorse. She too is treated as an equally belittled outlier by her own proud Black and Muslim parents Akbhar and Fatima (co-headliner Eddie Murphy and the too-young-to-play-a-mother-of-a-thirtysomething Nia Long of The Best Man franchise). They are the types that would roll over in their graves if they found out their daughter was dating– let alone marrying– a white Jew, especially an oddball one who looks fake and possibly disrespectful with his cultural tastes at first glance. 

Naturally, these two polar opposite families, with their built-in craziness, are going to meet their child’s significant others (eventually each other as well) and show their asses in You People. When Akbar and Fatima are invited by Ezra for an introductory lunch at Roscoe’s Chicken and Waffles, the father’s opening line is, “Do you hang out in the hood all the time or just come to get our food and women?” and it stops Ezra in his blessing-seeking tracks. With a more severe case of foot-in-mouth calamity, Shelley bungles every attempt to shuck her white privilege and talks as if she’s progressively informed on racial matters to Amira. The mutual humiliations and blanket judgments from both sides pile up quickly.

When Ezra and Amira are alone in their cohabitation and relationship, they’re fine, and, matching one of Ezra’s big principles, they don’t put each other or anyone else in a box based on a label. However, when their parents are around, integrity falters. The hammered lesson is to be honest about yourself to people you’re trying to impress. The parents loosen their tongues with fits of one-upmanship to out-brag the other, while the adult children bite theirs from properly correcting them when they should. Both Ezra and Amira bottle up the mistreatment and misrepresentations to the point where the stress begins to ruin their own unity. 

In these awkward encounters, the comedy bits written by Jonah Hill and black-ish creator Kenya Barris making his feature directorial debut should be steady firewood for either belly laughs or hot bonfire debates that stew all movie long. Latitude was given for full-throated and profanity-laced honesty. Instead, good luck registering sparks or cinders with You People. Because cringe-centered situations and punchlines are inherently uncomfortable, the humor is more embarrassing than provocative, even though Julia Louis-Dreyfus carpet-bombs her payload of zingers. 

On the bright side, one solid choice of You People was steering Eddie Murphy into the role as the straight man of this comedy. We’ve seen enough manic versions of Eddie to last us decades. Barris wisely stashes his loose cannon persona and lets Murphy’s matured celebrity aura be the foundation. By doing so, You People is one of the most calculated uses of his screen presence in a long, long time. The same cannot be said of his main co-star.

Jonah Hill displays a wonky energy in a lead role that bounces up and down on a trampoline of storytelling consistency. The guy we see saying and doing the most right, resolute, and supportive things by his woman in one scene will inexplicably fold in an instant for the sake of being the butt of a joke in another. Sure, Hill is an expert at playing the sad sack, but the cycle of repeated failures feels unhelpful against the bigger messages in play. 

You People had a good thing going by making Ezra a character forthright and confident with his diverse values. Holding onto that righteousness firmly in a setting of racial intensity instead of so easily losing it for comedy’s sake would have been something special and valuable. Barris and Hill missed creating a truly bold example for this current climate and stayed safe within glamour and predictability. There was room to present cultures and hearts matching in loving unison better than this. 

From Spencer Tracy and Sidney Poiter, forward to Ben Stiller and Robert De Niro, and even to the likes of Ashton Kutcher and Bernie Mac, you’ve seen the interesting proposition of You People and its kind of entertaining clash before. Though it was made in 2021 and bears the label of 2023, You People is about a decade late to its own civics rally. The topicality has come and gone. Kenya Barris’s film arrives almost immediately wrapped in a time capsule, one that few will meaningfully open in years to come without more significance to recognize and remember.

Written by Don Shanahan

DON SHANAHAN is a Chicago-based Rotten Tomatoes-approved film critic writing here on Film Obsessive as the Editor-in-Chief and Content Supervisor for the film department. He also writes for his own website, Every Movie Has a Lesson. Don is one of the hosts of the Cinephile Hissy Fit Podcast on the Ruminations Radio Network and sponsored by Film Obsessive. As a school teacher by day, Don writes his movie reviews with life lessons in mind, from the serious to the farcical. He is a proud director and one of the founders of the Chicago Indie Critics and a voting member of the nationally-recognized Critics Choice Association, Online Film Critics Society, North American Film Critics Association, International Film Society Critics Association, Internet Film Critics Society, Online Film and TV Association, and the Celebrity Movie Awards.

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